Last season's NBA Finals runners-up the Phoenix Suns took down the Houston Rockets 123-111 for their third consecutive win on Thursday.

Devin Booker inspired the Suns with 27 points while Landry Shamet added 19 points off the bench in Phoenix.

Chris Paul contributed 13 assists, nine points and five steals for the Suns (4-3), who moved above .500 for the first time this season.

Paul is averaging 12.0 assists and 2.4 steals per game in 2021-22. Entering the contest, this season had marked the fifth time in the last 25 years a player has averaged at least 11.0 assists and 2.0 steals over his first six games of a season – the Suns All-Star has been responsible for four of the five, per Stats Perform.

 

Christian Wood (18 points and 15 rebounds) and Kevin Porter Jr. (20 points) starred but the lowly Rockets (1-7) dropped their fifth straight game.

 

Celtics cool red-hot Heat

The Boston Celtics (4-5) have struggled for form this season, though they made a statement with a 95-78 win over the Miami Heat (6-2). Miami – top of the Eastern Conference prior to the game – had their worst scoring performance since January 2016.

The Philadelphia 76ers (7-1) moved to the top of the east thanks to a 109-98 win at the struggling Detroit Pistons (1-7). Seth Curry produced another stellar shooting display – going nine of 14 from the field – for 23 points. MVP runner-up Joel Embiid had 19 points and nine rebounds as he collected his 3,000th career board in his 268th game – the only 76er in history to reach the mark sooner was Hall of Famer Charles Barkley (253 games).

 

Lakers streak snapped

Playing without injured superstar LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers (5-4) had their three-game winning streak ended after being stunned 107-104 by the Oklahoma City Thunder (2-6).

LeBron James recorded his second double-double of the season and first since opening night as the streaking Los Angeles Lakers withstood the Houston Rockets 119-117 on Tuesday.

James, who was a game-time decision again with his niggling ankle issue, scored 30 points – including two-of-four shooting from three-point – range along with 10 assists, four rebounds and two steals. The four-time NBA MVP added 14 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter.

The Lakers had led by eight points in the final quarter but escaped with the win, improving their record to 5-3 on the back of three straight victories, as Kevin Porter Jr.'s three-point attempt to steal the game on the buzzer rimmed out.

Star trio James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook scored a collective 84 points in their most productive game together after the latter arrived from the Washington Wizards in the offseason.

Davis added 27 points, nine rebounds and three assists, while former MVP Westbrook had 27 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

 

Paul third for all-time assists

Chris Paul had 18 assists along with 14 points and seven rebounds to help the Phoenix Suns overcome a 20-point deficit in their rallying 112-100 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Paul moved past Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into third for all-time NBA assists. The Suns guard has 10,336 assists, behind only John Stockton (15,806) and Jason Kidd (12,091).

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 28 points, eight rebounds and nine assists as reigning champions the Milwaukee Bucks ended their three-game skid with a 117-89 win against the struggling Detroit Pistons.

Kyle Lowry drained six three-pointers among his 22 points and nine assists as the red-hot Miami Heat beat the Dallas Mavericks 125-110. Luka Doncic scored 33 points for the Mavs.

 

Clarkson's three-point woes

Utah Jazz point guard Jordan Clarkson shot poorly, going one of 11 from beyond the arc, scoring only two points in their 119-113 victory over the Sacramento Kings.

James Harden recorded his first triple-double of the season as the Brooklyn Nets claimed back-to-back wins for the first time this NBA campaign in a 117-91 victory over the lowly Detroit Pistons on Sunday.

Harden finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists after three quarters, while Nets team-mate Kevin Durant top-scored with 23 points but was ejected in the third quarter for shoving his elbow into Kelly Olynyk's face.

Former MVP Harden has had a slow start to 2021-22, however, he backed up his season-high 29 points against the Indiana Pacers on Friday with another impressive showing which will encourage the championship-chasing Nets (4-3) that he is getting back to his best after an injury-impacted offseason.

Harden hit four three-pointers as the superstar guard – already Brooklyn's all-time triple-double leader with 13 – joined Hall of Famer Larry Bird for second on the NBA's all-time list with 59.

 

Mitchell leads Jazz past struggling champs

Donovan Mitchell starred with 28 points, including a treble of first-quarters three-pointers as the Utah Jazz hit their first five attempts from range in a 107-95 win against slumping champions the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists for the Bucks, who have lost three in a row.

Carmelo Anthony – who is shooting a career-high 50 per cent and 52.2 per cent from three this season – scored 23 points off the bench, while LeBron James had 15 points, seven rebounds and assists in the Los Angeles Lakers' 95-85 triumph over the Houston Rockets.

Luka Doncic led the way for the Dallas Mavericks with 23 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists in a 105-99 victory against the Sacramento Kings.

 

Dame cold in Blazers loss

All-Star Damian Lillard's shooting was wayward as the Portland Trail Blazers were downed 125-113 by the Charlotte Hornets, hitting two from 14 from three-point range for a below-standard 14-point return.

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer is hopeful of getting key players Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton back soon after the NBA champions slumped to their third successive defeat.

The Bucks went down 107-95 to the Utah Jazz on Sunday, with two-time All-Star Middleton absent due to illness, which Budenholzer clarified after the game was not COVID-related.

The loss condemned Milwaukee to yet another loss, leaving the Bucks 3-4 in their title defence as they struggle without All-Star Holiday (ankle), Brook Lopez (back) and Rodney Hood (hand).

Milwaukee – who had averaged 91.5 points on Halloween since the 2000-01 season, second lowest in the NBA heading into the matchup – were again forced to come from behind against the Jazz, trailing by 17 points at the final change, with a late rally not enough.

"The group kept fighting tonight," Budenholzer said in a news conference. "The fight was good. We couldn't quite get there but the guys were working."

Giannis Antetokounmpo top-scored with 25 points, along with seven rebounds and six assists, but he lacked support with Holiday, Lopez and Middleton out.

Holiday has not played since injuring his ankle in the Bucks' opening night win against Eastern Conference rivals the Brooklyn Nets.

"Jrue, I think we'll see how he feels in the morning," Budenholzer said. "He actually got some basketball work in today and I think he's trending in a good direction."

On Lopez, he added: "There's not a new update and there never really has been a timeline. But he's doing good stuff in the weight room, doing good stuff to get better and he'll continue that."

Budenholzer also clarified the status of shooting guard Hood, who previously had a foot injury before undergoing scans on his hand.

"The X-rays the other day were inconclusive," Budenholzer said. "On examination we decided he couldn't play. We'll get another X-ray and look at it tomorrow and hope for the best."

The Bucks return to action on Tuesday against the lowly Detroit Pistons who are 1-5.

NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks suffered consecutive defeats after being upstaged by the San Antonio Spurs 102-93.

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted a double-double of 28 points and 13 rebounds, but the Bucks still suffered back-to-back losses on Saturday.

The Spurs (2-4) trumped the Bucks (3-3) on the road in Milwaukee thanks to point guard Dejounte Murray, who scored 16 of his 23 points in the final period.

Murray entered the contest having put up 44 points, 22 rebounds and 23 assists over his previous two games – the only Spurs player in the last 30 seasons to have had at least 40 points, 20 rebounds and 20 assists over a two-game span, according to Stats Perform.

"Obviously, it's a good win against the NBA champions," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said after the Bucks were again without Jrue Holiday due to an ankle injury. "They were missing a pretty big piece tonight but it happens to all of us."

 

 

76ers gain some revenge as Heat sizzle

Facing the Atlanta Hawks for the first time since being surprisingly eliminated in last season's Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Philadelphia 76ers routed their rivals 122-94. Tobias Harris fuelled the 76ers with 22 points and 11 rebounds, joining Joel Embiid as the only 76ers players this season with 20-10 games.

The high-flying Miami Heat finished one short of setting a new franchise record after sinking 21 three-pointers in their 129-103 victory at the Memphis Grizzlies. Jimmy Butler led the way with 27 points.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic starred with 26 points and 19 rebounds as the Denver Nuggets outlasted the Minnesota Timberwolves 93-91.

Double-doubles from Deandre Ayton (17 points and 12 rebounds) and Chris Paul (16 points and 10 assists) helped last season's NBA Finals runners-up the Phoenix Suns beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 101-92.

 

Jazz taste defeat

The Utah Jazz were the last unbeaten team remaining having opened their season 4-0, until the new-look Chicago Bulls spoiled the party with a 107-99 win.

The Golden State Warriors lost for the first time this NBA season, Stephen Curry and his team-mates outlasted 104-101 by the rallying Memphis Grizzlies after overtime.

Golden State were riding a 4-0 record – their sixth such start to a campaign in franchise history – but the Warriors came unstuck at home to the Grizzlies on Thursday.

Having forced overtime with a 25-19 fourth quarter, Ja Morant's Grizzlies outscored the Warriors 6-3 in OT to inflict a first loss of the season on Golden State.

Morant – leading the league with 30.4 points per game this season – fuelled the Grizzlies with 30 points on the road after overturning a 19-point deficit.

 

Curry, who did not score in the fourth quarter or OT, had a game-high 36 points as the Warriors ended the game with 22 turnovers.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls – enjoying their first 4-0 start to a season since 1996-97 – also lost for the first time in 2021-22, edged 104-103 by the New York Knicks.

 

Embiid leads the way, Jazz stay undefeated

Despite a sore right knee, last season's MVP runner-up Joel Embiid inspired the Philadelphia 76ers to a 110-102 victory over the winless Detroit Pistons. Embiid had 30 points and 18 rebounds. The 76ers star put up 19 points and 12 boards in the opening half – the sixth time since the start of last season he has posted a point-rebound double-double in a half, tied for seventh in the NBA during that span.

The Utah Jazz – last season's Western Conference top seeds – are the lone unbeaten team in the league after routing the Houston Rockets 122-91. All-Star Rudy Gobert (16 points and 14 rebounds) recorded another double-double. According to Stats Perform, it is the first time ever the Jazz are the last remaining undefeated side in the NBA.

 

Slumping Spurs lose again

The San Antonio Spurs lost their fourth consecutive game, this time falling to rivals the Dallas Mavericks 104-99.

Kevin Huerter was one of the surprising stars of the Atlanta Hawks' run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, but he struggled in the 122-111 loss at the Washington Wizards. He was scoreless in 14 minutes, having missed all four of his shots from the field.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic missed the second half of the Denver Nuggets' 122-110 loss to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday with a knee injury but the team does not believe it will be a serious problem. 

Jokic was off to a torrid start when he banged knees with Jazz big man Rudy Gobert with about two minutes to play in the first half and left the game. 

Denver head coach Michael Malone said he decided to keep Jokic on the bench after a brief half-time discussion with the 26-year-old. 

The official diagnosis was a knee contusion and Malone said he was not sure if Jokic would need further testing. 

"I don't think it's anything too serious," Malone told reporters. "I went up to Nikola as he was warming up at half-time and said how do you feel and he said 'It feels a little weak' and I just shut him down.

"Nikola's a tough kid, we've seen him time and time again play through injuries, never sit out. Second night of a back-to-back, he's far too important for this team for us to risk him being out there if he's not feeling confident about it."

Though he played only 15 minutes Tuesday, Jokic ended up leading the Nuggets with 24 points and six assists, and he also added six rebounds before departing. 

Jokic made eight of nine shots from the field including all three of his three-point tries. 

After suffering 12-point losses to the Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers on successive nights, the Nuggets (2-2) are off until hosting the Dallas Mavericks on Friday. 

The Phoenix Suns soared to a 115-105 victory as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were condemned to back-to-back defeats to start the 2021-22 NBA season.

Chris Paul fuelled the Suns with 23 points and 14 rebounds in Los Angeles, where the Lakers were no match for last season's NBA Finals participants and fell to 0-2.

Paul became the first player in NBA history with 20,000 points and 10,000 assists.

Devin Booker (22 points) and Mikal Bridges (21 points) also impressed for the Suns, while double-doubles from Anthony Davis (22 points and 14 rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (15 points and 11 rebounds) were not enough for the Lakers.

James finished with 25 points in front of the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Justin Bieber at Staples Center.

The Lakers' woes were compounded by a row between team-mates Davis and Dwight Howard on the bench during the second quarter as the pair had to be separated.

 

 

Durant's Nets spoil 76ers' opener

The Philadelphia 76ers looked in control and on track for victory but they were upstaged 114-109 by Eastern Conference rivals the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant posted a triple-double of 29 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists as the Nets used a 16-1 run to stun the 76ers in their first home game of the season in Philadelphia. James Harden had 20 points, while LaMarcus Aldridge added 23 points off the bench on 10-of-12 shooting. Seth Curry made all four of this three-pointers to finish with 23 points, the same amount as 76ers team-mate Tobias Harris.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic showed why he was crowned the league's best player last season, scoring 32 points, collecting 16 rebounds and supplying seven assists in a 102-96 win against the San Antonio Spurs. It was his eighth 30/15/5 game, doubling the rest of the Nuggets franchise history combined.

The Chicago Bulls' new-look team improved to 2-0 thanks to a 128-112 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans. Lonzo Ball inspired the win behind his triple-double (17 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds), while Zach LaVine (32 points) and DeMar DeRozan (26 points) also came up big.

The Utah Jazz stayed unbeaten courtesy of dominant displays from All-Star duo Donovan Mitchell (27 points) and Rudy Gobert (17 points and 20 assists) in the 110-101 road win at the Sacramento Kings.

Myles turner joined James, Harden, Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady as the only players in NBA history to score 40 points, 10 rebounds, five three-pointers and three blocks in a game. The Indiana Pacers still lost 135-134 to the Washington Wizards in overtime.

 

Celtics lose again

The Boston Celtics were booed off the court at half-time and throughout the second half in their 115-83 defeat against the Toronto Raptors. Jaylen Brown was three-for-13 shooting for nine points and five turnovers, while Marcus Smart ended the game scoreless on 0-for-six shooting in 29 minutes as the Celtics fell to 0-2.

The Philadelphia 76ers put aside the Ben Simmons drama for 48 minutes as the championship-chasing team opened their NBA season with a 117-97 win at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Simmons was nowhere to be seen in New Orleans after the disgruntled All-Star – demanding a trade – was suspended on Tuesday for "conduct detrimental to the team" following reports he was ejected from practice by head coach Doc Rivers.

The 76ers – last season's Eastern Conference top seeds – played without Simmons on Wednesday and made light work of the Zion Williamson-less Pelicans behind Joel Embiid (22 points), Furkan Korkmaz (22 points), Tobias Harris (20 points and 12 rebounds) and new starting point guard Tyrese Maxey (20 points, seven rebounds and five) for their first season-opening road win since 2004.

Korkmaz sizzled in the fourth quarter, scoring 18 points on four-for-four shooting from three-point range – the most points in a quarter by a Sixers bench player since Lou Williams in 2011.

 

 

LaMelo leads Hornets rally, Brown has career night

LaMelo Ball put on a show as he helped the Charlotte Hornets come back to pip the Indiana Pacers 123-122. The reigning Rookie of the Year put up 31 points, including seven three-pointers – tying a career high, nine rebounds and seven assists to fuel Charlotte's rally. The Hornets used a 24-0 run – in which Ball scored 12 points – in the third period to the stun the Pacers. Chris Duarte (27 points, six three-pointers and five rebounds) became the first Pacers rookie with 25-plus points, five-plus rebounds and five-plus threes in a game since Jamaal Tinsley in 2002.

A career-high 46 points from Jaylen Brown was not enough as the Boston Celtics lost a wild showdown with the New York Knicks 138-134 after double overtime. Brown's tally was the most points ever by a Celtics player in a season opener. The Knicks withstood the Celtics thanks to Julius Randle (35 points) and debutant Evan Fournier, whose 32 points were the most by a player on debut in franchise history.

Jo Morant had 37 points – the second most on opening night in franchise history, behind only his 44-point haul last season – in the Memphis Grizzlies' 132-121 win at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Memphis posted 73 points by half-time – tying the fifth-highest first-half scoring total in their history.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic's 27 points and 13 rebounds guided the Denver Nuggets past last season's NBA Finals participants the Phoenix Suns 110-98.

CJ McCollum (34 points), Damian Lillard (20 points and 11 assists) and Jusuf Nurkic (20 points and 14 rebounds) combined for 74 points but the Portland Trail Blazers still lost 124-121 to the Sacramento Kings, who were led by Harrison Barnes' 36 points and eight three-pointers.

 

Forgettable debut for Rockets rookie

The second pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Jalen Green endured a baptism of fire midweek. The Houston Rockets rookie finished with nine points on four-of-14 shooting from the field, while he made just one of six three-pointers. His minus-37 was the worst plus-minus by a Rockets rookie in a game in the last 20 seasons – tied for the fourth worst by any Rocket in that span. The Rockets were taken down 124-106 by Minnesota Timberwolves trio Karl-Anthony Towns (30 points and 10 rebounds), Anthony Edwards (29 points) and D'Angelo Russell (22 points).

Back on home court for the first time since February 2020, the Toronto Raptors' long-awaited return to Canada ended in a disappointing 98-83 loss to the Washington Wizards. Toronto missed 19 of their first 21 three-pointers, finishing seven of 34 from beyond the card. They were just 30.9 per cent from the field overall.

Suns star Devin Booker was far from his best against the Nuggets, finishing three-of-15 shooting for 12 points in 30 minutes of action.

The term "positionless" has been all the buzz in the NBA the last few years, and the first round of the 2021 draft followed that trend as the Detroit Pistons took Cade Cunningham with the first overall pick and players with similar skill sets went off the board soon after. 

Longstanding positional terms like guard, forward and center have gone out the window as athletic players like NBA MVP Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets have taken over the league, and Cunningham leads the latest crop of versatile options. 

Checking in at 6-foot-8, Cunningham often plays like a point guard, leading his team down the floor – exactly the kind of headache-inducing matchup teams are seeking these days. 

After the Houston Rockets took guard Jalen Green second overall and the Cleveland Cavaliers used the third pick on big man Evan Mobley, the Toronto Raptors surprised many prognosticators by taking another of those positionless players at number four with Scottie Barnes. 

At 6-foot-9, his role at Florida State was similar to Cunningham's at Oklahoma State, running the offence while defending across multiple positions. 

"He's a multi-faceted, multi-positional two-way player," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told reporters. "We like guys that can handle, pass, score, defend, rebound a little bit and just kind of come at you in waves with that." 

Most had expected Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs to be Toronto's pick after US fans fell in love with him during the NCAA Tournament, but he fell to the Orlando Magic at number five. 

The Okahoma City Thunder then took yet another 6-8 talent in Australia's Josh Giddey at number six in a move that caught many off guard. 

It was more of the same with the following pick as the Golden State Warriors took Jonathan Kuminga, a player who can defend anyone and is unafraid to launch from three-point range. 

It was that kind of night as NBA teams added young talent while trading players and picks in this and future drafts.

Because most transactions cannot become official until August 6, teams selected players they know they will not keep due to deals made ahead of and during the draft. 

Those types of moves prevailed in the latter half of the first round, with numerous reported trades on the cards. 

Among them, yet another versatile big man in Turkey's Alperen Sengun, who was drafted at number 16 by the Oklahoma City Thunder but reportedly will play for Houston. 

The 6-foot-10 Sengun told reporters he believes his passing abilities will help him excel as other European imports have done before him. 

"With my new team, Houston, I will bring something different on the court," he said. "I will do whatever it takes and whatever is needed." 

As the lines between positions and roles continue to blur in the NBA, that approach has increasingly become the default setting across the board. 

 

2021 NBA Draft first-round picks

1. Detroit Pistons – Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
2. Houston Rockets – Jalen Green, USA
3. Cleveland Cavaliers – Evan Mobley, USC
4. Toronto Raptors – Scottie Barnes, Florida State
5. Orlando Magic – Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
6. Oklahoma City Thunder – Josh Giddey, Australia
7. Golden State Warriors – Jonathan Kuminga, Congo
8. Orlando Magic – Franz Wagner, Michigan
9. Sacramento Kings – Davion Mitchell, Baylor
10. New Orleans Pelicans – Ziaire Williams, Stanford (traded to Grizzlies)
11. Charlotte Hornets – James Bouknight, Connecticut
12. San Antonio Spurs – Josh Primo, Alabama
13. Indiana Pacers – Chris Duarte, Oregon
14. Golden State Warriors – Moses Moody, Arkansas 
15. Washington Wizards – Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
16. Oklahoma City Thunder – Alperen Sengun, Turkey (reportedly traded to Rockets)
17. Memphis Grizzlies – Trey Murphy III, Virginia (traded to Pelicans)
18. Oklahoma City Thunder – Tre Mann, Florida
19. New York Knicks – Kai Jones, Texas (reportedly traded to Hornets)
20. Atlanta Hawks –Jalen Johnson, Duke
21. New York Knicks – Keon Johnson, Tennessee
22. Los Angeles Lakers – Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky (traded to Pacers via Wizards)
23. Houston Rockets – Usman Garuba, Spain
24. Houston Rockets – Josh Christopher, Arizona State
25. Los Angeles Clippers – Quentin Grimes, Houston (reportedly traded to Knicks)
26. Denver Nuggets – Nah'Shon Hyland, VCU
27. Brooklyn Nets – Cam Thomas, LSU
28. Philadelphia 76ers – Jaden Springer, Tennessee
29. Phoenix Suns – Day'Ron Sharpe, North Carolina (reportedly traded to Nets)
30. Utah Jazz – Santi Aldama, Loyola (reportedly traded to Grizzlies)

Joe Ingles is coming off the sort of disappointment with the Utah Jazz that perhaps only an Olympic medal could soothe.

Ingles, runner-up for the NBA's Sixth Man Award in the 2020-21 season, could not prevent the top-seeded Jazz losing to the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round of the playoffs.

He scored 19 points in three successive games against the Clippers but twice in a losing cause, meaning a season that he packed with career-bests ended on a painful note.

Ingles is now chasing gold with Australia at Tokyo 2020, with an opening game against Nigeria scheduled for Sunday.

Australia have never won an Olympic medal in men's basketball, finishing fourth on four occasions, most recently at Rio 2016. 

They were also fourth at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, but Ingles says the time has come to get hold of a medal.

Gold is the obvious target, and when Ingles was asked whether silver or bronze would be a disappointment, his verdict was that anything but top step on the podium would feel like a letdown, at least initially.

"In the moment, yeah; in the long run, no," he said. "We don't talk about anything else – there's one goal in mind and that's to win a gold medal in Tokyo.

"If we wait and look 10 years down the track we'll think different but we're here to make history."

Australia's women have fared better on the big stage, winning three Olympic silvers and two bronze medals.

 

Ingles had an NBA career-best 34 points against the Washington Wizards in March, while in January he passed John Stockton to set a new Jazz record for the most three-pointers in a career with the franchise. Stockton made 845 and Ingles is now on 993.

He set career highs in field-goal percentage (48.9 per cent), three-point success rate (45.1 per cent) and free-throw hit rate (84.4 per cent) in the regular season, along with a points-per-game average of 12.1 that matched his 2018-19 best.

Now the 33-year-old small forward heads into his fourth Olympics seeking that elusive medal, and a familiar face in Brian Goorjian is leading the team.

Coach Goorjian was in charge of Australia when Ingles made his Games debut in 2008 at Beijing, and he returned to the role in November of last year.

"He's a lot older. We're both a lot older," Ingles said. "So awesome to have him back.

"I was interested to see if there would be any differences in him. He moves a bit slower and his fingers are a bit more busted up but he's the same coach."

The matchups are set for the NBA's Conference Finals – and few would have predicted these four teams would still be in the running at the start of the year.

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets' superstars fell to the Milwaukee Bucks while the Atlanta Hawks stunned the Philadelphia 76ers.

Western Conference leaders the Utah Jazz became the latest team to give up a lead to the Los Angeles Clippers.

However, the Clippers on Sunday lost Game 1 of their series with the Phoenix Suns, who had been resting since sweeping the Denver Nuggets.

So, which big names were key to deciding these unpredictable battles? Stats Perform takes a look in the latest edition of NBA Heat Check...
 

RUNNING HOT...

Paul George

Clippers superstar George understandably took a lot of criticism for his playoff performances last season, when he shot 39.8 per cent from the field and scored 10 points or fewer as many times as he reached 30.

But just as Kawhi Leonard went down against the Jazz with a knee injury, for which he has no return date, George found his scoring touch again.

Across four straight wins over Utah – three were last week – George contributed 31, 31, 37 and 28 points. His 37, along with 16 rebounds, came on the road in Game 5, putting the Clippers up for the first time in the series while Leonard sat out.

Even as a surely tired LA team lost to Phoenix on Sunday, George kept them in contention with 34 points to end the week averaging 32.5 per outing, as well as 9.5 rebounds (up from 23.3 and 6.7 respectively in the regular season).

Khris Middleton

Middleton is another impressive regular season performer who has been scrutinised for his postseason displays – and far more recently than last season.

Across the first five games of the Nets series, the wildly inconsistent Bucks forward shot 38.1 per cent from the field. He had 35 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3 but had gone six-for-23 in Game 1, making none of his five three-point attempts.

Yet Middleton's 38 points won Game 6, as he and Giannis Antetokounmpo joined Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as the only team-mates in NBA history to each have 30 points and 10 rebounds in the same game twice in the same playoff campaign.

With a key role again in the series decider, Middleton became the first player to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in consecutive postseason games since steals were first tracked in 1973-74.

Devin Booker

Booker played just once last week but put in a performance that cannot go unmentioned. Without veteran Chris Paul to help him, the sixth-year guard weighed in with a 40-point triple-double against the Clippers (also 13 rebounds and 11 assists).

Only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age in the playoffs than the 24-year-old, while Steve Nash – another Hall of Famer – was the previous Suns player to score a postseason triple of any kind back in 2005.

Kevin Durant

Another player whose contributions must be highlighted, even with his team now out of the playoffs, is Durant. With 43.0 points per game last week, he showed the greatest improvement in the league from his regular season performances – up 16.1 on 26.9.

His 12.3 rebounds per game put the two-time Finals MVP second in improvement in that regard, too, but it was not quite enough.

A toe on the three-point line meant Durant's late leveller in Game 7 against the Bucks was not a game-winner, before the Nets lost in overtime despite his 48 points – one short of a heroic Game 5 tally and two shy of his career postseason best.
 

GOING COLD...

James Harden

That Durant was asked to do so much was due to injuries to both the other members of Brooklyn's 'Big Three'. Kyrie Irving did not play after Game 4 against the Bucks due to an ankle sprain, while Harden returned in Game 5 after missing the previous three.

To anyone watching, though, it was clear Harden was not healthy.

One of the league's great scorers, he made one of 10 field goals in his first game back, with five points in 45 minutes. Harden had never previously scored as few as five in half an hour of play or more.

His form did improve slightly with returns of 16 and 22 points, but Milwaukee won both, with Harden shooting 29.4 per cent from the field as he proved more of a hindrance than a help to Durant with their season on the line.

Ben Simmons

When Harden moved to Brooklyn, Philadelphia was seen as the potential alternative destination, although that would likely have meant the 76ers reluctantly giving up Simmons. After the defeat to Atlanta, Simmons may now leave regardless.

An outstanding defender, the guard's offense has long been a concern and so it proved again as he averaged 7.5 points last week, significantly down on his modest regular season (14.3).

Simmons made single figures in three straight games, twice shooting only four times from the field despite being on the floor for 38 and 35 minutes respectively.

His eight-point effort on Wednesday included going four-of-14 when shooting from the foul line.

Rudy Gobert

This is the first time since 1994 that both top seeds have failed to make the Conference Finals. The Jazz, just like the Sixers, needed more from their second star.

Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year but looked a liability as the Clippers went small in Game 6, when his plus/minus was a dismal -24.

The Frenchman's output was down in all three defeats last week as he averaged 9.3 rebounds per game, having put up 13.5 in the regular season.

Terance Mann says he is "not surprised" after helping the Los Angeles Clippers overturn a 25-point deficit to eliminate the Utah Jazz en route to reaching their first Western Conference Final.

Second-year forward Mann, drafted number 46 overall in the 2019 NBA draft, posted a career-high 39 points with seven-from-10 three-pointers – five of those in the second half –  in Friday's remarkable 131-119 victory.

He had never scored more than 25 points in an NBA game. According to Stats Perform, the last player to have 14-plus points more in a playoff game than his previous career high was Michael Jordan in his NBA-record 63-point game in 1986.

The Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard and trailed the Jazz by 25 points early in the third quarter, before going on a 75-40 run to set up a showdown with the second-seeded Phoenix Suns for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Mann averaged 7.0 points per game this season but proved the star of the show in the Clippers' famous win to earn the acclaim of his colleagues.

"You saw a complete game from a second-year player," said Paul George, who had 28 points. 

"Honestly, he single-handedly willed us back through that stretch where he just, you know, 3 after 3 to downhill attacks to defending. You know, he did it all."

Mann made five of his seven threes over a 23:36 stretch, but the game-winning performance did not come as a surprise to the 24-year-old, who was given a standing ovation by the Staples Center crowd.

"I just had to lock in and do what I had to do," he said. "They were leaving me open.

"I trust my work. When you trust your work, you trust in yourself, you're not surprised when any of this happens."

The Clippers had trailed 2-0 in the NBA playoff series but rallied to close out the second-round matchup 4-2 against the side with the best regular-season record in 2020-21.

A first Conference Final in their 51-year franchise history now awaits and coach Tyronn Lue wants crosstown Los Angeles Lakers to get behind the Clippers when they face the Phoenix Suns, starting this Sunday.

"Just seeing our fans and how they stayed to the end and how they were cheering, it just felt good," Lue said. "The team has been starving for success, and the fan base has been doing the same thing.

"I know the Lakers are out and there's a lot of Lakers fans here. But once the Lakers are gone, if we're not playing them, you should be cheering for the Clippers because it's all in one city. I can feel the love, and I'm very happy and proud of our guys."

The Los Angeles Clippers overturned a 25-point deficit to sensationally eliminate the Utah Jazz en route to their first Western Conference Final, stunning the top seeds 131-119 on Friday.

Despite the absence of star Kawhi Leonard and a large third-quarter deficit against the Jazz, the Clipper produced a miraculous comeback to advance to a Conference Final for the first time in the franchise's 51-year history.

The Clippers had trailed 2-0 in the NBA playoff series but rallied to close out the second-round matchup 4-2 against the side with the best regular-season record in 2020-21 as the Phoenix Suns await, starting on Sunday.

Seeded fourth, the Clippers – who also rallied from 2-0 down against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, having squandered a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets' in last season's Western Conference semi-finals, were fuelled by Terance Mann.

Terance Mann posted a career-high 39 points with seven-from-10 three-pointers, including five in the second half.

Mann had never scored more than 25 points in an NBA game previously. According to Stats Perform, the last player to have 14-plus points in a playoff game than his previous career high was Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in his NBA-record 63-point game in 1986.

Paul George was outstanding with 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, while Reggie Jackson finished with 27 points and 10 assists to guide the Clippers.

It was a disappointing end for the Jazz, who were excellent throughout the regular season and had started strongly in Game 6, leading 72-50 at half-time.

Donovan Mitchell scored 39 points, with nine rebounds and nine assists for Utah as the Jazz became the first team in NBA history to win a postseason clash by double digits after trailing by 20-plus points at half-time, per Stats Perform.

Earlier on Friday, the Philadelphia 76ers responded after letting big leads slip in Game 4 and 5 to force an Eastern Conference semi-final decider with a 104-99 win away to the Atlanta Hawks.

Seth Curry, who made six of his nine three-point attempts, and Tobias Harris both scored 24 points for the top-seeded 76ers – who levelled the second-round series at 3-3, forcing a Game 7 in Philadelphia on Sunday.

Atlanta had started strong to compound the pressure on the 76ers, but Philadelphia withstood the early storm, with a 12-0 run after half-time before holding their nerve in the last quarter.

All-Star and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds, while rookie Tyrese Maxey had an influential final quarter, scoring 16 points for the game, after Ben Simmons was benched plagued by his shooting woes.

Hawks All-Star Trae Young had a game-high 34 points, shooting five-from-10 from three-point range, along with 12 assists, five rebounds and three steals.

 

Bucks at Nets

The gripping Eastern Conference semi-final series between the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks will be decided at Barclays Center on Saturday. Hosts the Nets will be missing Kyrie Irving due to an ankle injury as James Harden battles for mobility after re-injuring his hamstring in Game 1.

Utah Jazz star Mike Conley is set to make his long-awaited return against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of the Western Conference semi-finals.

Conley has not played since hurting his hamstring in the series-clinching Game 5 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round.

But with the top-seeded Jazz facing elimination from the NBA playoffs, All-Star guard Conley is available to face the Clippers on Friday.

The Jazz trail the fourth-ranked Clippers 3-2 heading into the must-win clash.

Conley has been averaging 17.4 points, a postseason career-high 8.6 assists and 3.8 rebounds through five games in the playoffs.

During the regular season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 6.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.

The Jazz have never lost a best-of-seven series after holding a 2-0 lead but have won only one of their nine best-of-seven series in when facing a 3-2 deficit, according to Stats Perform.

Utah have been down 3-2 with Game 6 on the road three times previously, losing all three. The Clippers have held a 3-2 series lead five times before – closing out the series in Game 6 only once (2020 against the Dallas Mavericks).

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